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Theater Review:

"MUSCLE," Pegasus Players at Truman College’s O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts

BY LUCIA MAURO

Whether you’ve got big biceps, a big name or just plain ol’ big cajones, chances are you’ll get noticed. All of those factors seem to be at play in "Muscle," the James Lapine-William Finn-Ellen Fitzhugh musical receiving its world premiere at Pegasus Players, based in Truman College’s O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts. But big doesn’t always mean better. Nor does the fact that the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Lapine (best known for his collaborations with Stephen Sondheim in "Passion," "Into the Woods" and "Sunday in the Park with George") and his famous fellow composer-lyricists guarantee a surefire hit.

But the truly shocking thing about this abysmal new work, based on Samuel Fussell’s semi-autobiographical book about a scrawny academic type who takes up competitive bodybuilding to pump up his self-confidence, is how it ever got past the first read-through. Not only is the story vapid, dated and disjointed but the connect-the-dots music is simplistic and thoroughly indistinguishable. Top that off with Pegasus’ shabby production – directed in full-blown cliché mode by Gareth Hendee – and you’ve got a "Muscle" atrophied by lack of invigorating creativity.

Most disturbing is the musical’s self-important tone – one that blatantly pigeonholes bodybuilders as dumb thugs; New Yorkers as obnoxious neurotics; and Californians as bimbos and spaced-out surfer dudes. In one of the show’s more innovative songs, "The Brain and the Body," the creators come close to addressing the crucial head vs. heart dilemma.

But, in the end, they wimp out – carrying their confused hero, Max Riddle, back to his more "noble" intellectual pursuits. In other words, Max just dabbles in bodybuilding before thumbing his nose at what he perceives as a sport dominated by lug heads and then exploits them in a tell-all book. The elitism is unbearable, especially considering that Max is a graduate of the prestigious Cornell University. The writers further push the hypocritical envelope by having the white Max fall for a female African-American bodybuilder. Yet the relationship is never believably developed.

"Muscle" moves from Cornell University to New York City, where the puny Max lands a job for a publishing company (filled with more mousy stereotypes). After getting pushed around by those ultra-aggressive New Yorkers in the Big Apple of the 1980s – as the lyrics tell us, "the old days before the yuppies sanitized the sleaze" – Max decides to work out at a gym, where he meets a couple of brawny power lifters. Once he experiences the high of pumped-up pecs, the one-time "pencil neck" gets buffed, cocky, starts pushing people around and decides to head for the West Coast to become a competitive bodybuilder.

In California, he hooks up with Vinnie -- the ultimate cliched muscle man – who turns Max onto steroids (another plot line that goes nowhere). There’s also a frustratingly pointless subplot involving Max’s seduction by his former classmate Alice, who reluctantly marries another Cornell alum. Then we’re forced to endure the dysfunctional relationship of Max’s selfish parents – his sleazy professor-father who has an affair with a student and his bland, forgiving mother.

Had Lapine and company spent more time exploring the psychology of bodybuilding rather than reinforcing stereotypes, they could have created an eye-opening piece of theater. Instead they belabor the hackneyed theme of the beautiful inner self winning out over the superficial outer self – all against a backdrop of sanitized self-satisfaction. And, of course, in Max’s case, the brains are definitely superior to brawn.

Apart from Jon Steinhagen’s sharp musical direction and piano accompaniment, Pegasus’ production feels like an amateur run-through. A more lush sound could have been achieved by expanding the orchestra beyond a lead piano and secondary synthesizer.

The ensemble in general is stiff and miscast. Why the director decided to cast a real bodybuilder (Brad Potts) as Vinnie, and just husky actors for the other bodybuilders (including one character with a speech impediment) is baffling and embarrassing. One of Max’s early trainers, Ajax (Timothy Jon), strains his vocal chords so hard in his interminable solo, "Never Look Back," you would think he was dead-lifting a half-ton of iron.

The talented Rob Hancock admirably tries to give Max some intriguing dimensions but is saddled with a lackluster role. Plus the poor guy has to strut around the stage in a ridiculous padded muscle suit that looks like one of those anatomical charts in a doctor’s office.

Most disappointing, the creators forget that the heart is the most powerful muscle – and heart is what’s missing most from this emotionally flabby musical.•

Pegasus Players’ production of "Muscle" runs through July 22 at Truman College’s O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts, 1145 W. Wilson Ave. Tickets: $20-$25. Call 773-878-9761.
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